America: Now and Here

America: Now and Here

A vast new art exhibition will attempt to reconnect the heartland to our nation’s artistic genius.

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William Blake’s poetry, wrote T.S. Eliot in 1920, illustrates "the eternal struggle…of the literary artist against the continuous deterioration of language." And perhaps at no prior time in American history has the nation’s language—and the countless connections among citizens that the language forges—felt so profoundly eroded. As E.L. Doctorow writes on page 26, hysteria, spiked with nativism and racism, runs rampant through society, bringing with it a blanket of disenchantment that smothers creativity, innovation and, ultimately, progress.

In the nine years since the September 11 attacks, Americans have indeed seen their public forum become nastier and nastier: hair-trigger antagonism and unease lace the nation’s public discourse; and many, from all educational and economic strata, have little faith in the direction the country is heading. "We are in a national crisis," says artist Eric Fischl. "We are totally atomizing our society to protect ourselves from something terrifying." But Fischl sees art as an antidote to the communication breakdown, and he’s recruited scores of artists to assist him. "People want to help a wounded nation. They want to contribute, to engage."

Fischl is the curator of "America: Now and Here" (ANH), a vast new art exhibition currently in development and scheduled to launch next summer (americanowandhere.org). Comprising visual art, poetry, film, music and drama—the only "constraint" is that all of the art needs to somehow embody "America"—the project is an attempt to reconnect the nation to its artistic genius, to re-engage society with the creative spark that was once seen as essential to its march of progress. Public figures from Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson saw creativity as central to advancement—in 1787, after all, American democracy was a completely innovative way of running a country. At its heart, "America: Now and Here" is a profound exploration and exposition—and exploitation—of American artistry. As Fischl explains, "Creativity is a form of literacy."

Central to this theme is that the nation itself is a creative project, an ideal fostered by the visionary efforts of its hyper-literate citizens. Feeling that America was suffering through an identity crisis that had been catalyzed by 9/11, Fischl conceived the project three years ago. "The country had become off-center," he said, and the common language that had previously informed and benefited generations of Americans had somehow been lost. "I’d have conversations with people I knew about the future of the country," Fischl recalled, "and they quickly became anxious, unsettled and nervous. No one felt confident that we had a future as a society."

ANH will see the so-called kitsch of Jeff Koons’s visual art commingle with the contemporary folk music of Rosanne Cash; the poetry of Adrienne Rich with Edward Albee’s drama. Movies curated by the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals will be screened at the exhibition and in other local venues. And more than sixty pieces of visual art at each location—think Diane Arbus without the in-your-face bizarreness, Jasper Johns without the winking, get-a-load-of-this irony—will portray America, and Americans, with diverse yet inclusive vibrancy and eclecticism.

One particular ANH poetry project, Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, will feature a dynamic "linked poem" that will follow America’s historic frontier westward, time zone by time zone. Created by fifty-four writers, the renga opens with Robert Pinsky’s East Coast musings:

Beginning of October, maples
kindle in the East, linked
to fire season in the West by what?
Three time zones, oceans of prairies. Rocky
precincts. Air, turbulence, icemelt. Ozone ranges.

It ends with a stanza written by Robert Hass, to be delivered as he looks out over the Pacific Ocean.

"Launching ‘America: Now and Here’ is itself a work of art," says Dorothy Dunn, director of the project. "It’s an entirely new way of celebrating America’s creativity within the context of society. Creativity is our edge as a nation, but right now it’s buried." Fischl compares the project to NASA’s Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s. "This is a modern version of our moon launch," he said. "We’re sending a ship into the interior of our lives, into something we can all participate in. ‘America: Now and Here’ carries with it an essential message of hope."

The Interstate highway–borne exhibition is both something of a throwback and an entirely new way of bringing art to the nation’s interior, and the show’s specially designed tractor-trailers serve as appropriate echoes of the wanderlust of America’s Airstream days. The exposition also harks back to the Chautauqua and whistle-stop circuits of the early twentieth century—the same format, Dunn points out, as the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s. And debate, dialogue and deliberation are what ANH seeks to promote. Visitors to the exhibition will be presented with a picnic basket filled with different manifestations of America: a Joan Baez audio recording, a Robert Rauschenberg objet d’art, a Philip Glass composition. Sifting through them, decoding them—and, ultimately, integrating them—will be essential to experiencing the exhibition. Ideally, visitors will leave the exhibit with more questions than answers.

Barnstorming through "hub cities," including Washington, Des Moines, Seattle, Memphis, Kansas City and LA, the exhibit will pass through eight regions each year, spending six weeks at each location. Fischl says the semitrailer approach should give people the feeling that the circus is coming to town—a decidedly nonelitist, all-are-welcome piece of imagery. This will be a popular exhibit, after all, one that is attempting to dissolve the perceived walls between the artistic "elite" and the salt-of-the-earth masses. There is an unfair preconception, says Dunn, that "culture" is the unique province of New York and LA, San Francisco and Washington. She points out that, given the enormous costs of launching a play, an art show or a performance in New York, "Middle America" already has some of the most fertile artistic soil in the country, with a latent talent and flair that ANH seeks to cultivate.

The project is receiving enthusiastic though nonmonetary support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kennedy Center and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, channeling cultural awareness from the littoral to the heartland. It’s an analogue to the Federal Project Number One component of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which included such programs as the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Art Project. "We’re WPA without the ‘A,’" explains Dunn, emphasizing that ANH’s scope is all the more distinctive for deriving an organic impetus from the energy of regular citizens, not from an executive dictum born in Washington.

To this end, a key component of ANH—and something Dunn and Fischl hope will be part of the exhibit’s lasting legacy—is the creation of Artist Corps, a program that will provide students and emerging artists the opportunity to inject themselves, and their towns, into an inclusive artistic community. "We want to position creativity at the core of society, not the margins," explains Dunn. Artist Corps will draw young visionaries from all corners of the country. Though Fischl admits that, unlike Roosevelt’s WPA, "America: Now and Here" doesn’t explicitly seek to put Americans to work, it should let Americans rediscover the opportunities afforded to them by an artistic heritage that has been subjugated by close-mindedness and fear. "The WPA is a great model of what we’re trying to do," he says. The Federal Project Number One introduced millions of Americans to one another through music, arts and letters; ideally, ANH will do the same.

A hub city’s metropolis will be merely the first stop at each location. In each region, the itinerary calls for two weeks in the city center, one week each in two smaller towns, one week at a state or community college and one week at a military base. The idea is to get people talking about art, to remind Americans that "American" art is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s. To Dunn, the exhibit is "aggressively patriotic"; for Fischl, this means willfully expelling the strident nationalism that has passed for patriotism for the past decade and replacing it with something more constructive and positive—in his words, a brand of patriotism that’s interesting and fun, strange and fabulous.

Fischl wants "America: Now and Here" to remind people that art can and should work for the populace rather than despite it. "If communities make demands on artists, which is easier than you’d think," he says, "and ask them to be a part of civic life, the artists will agree. If people want it, art can be a central part of their lives." ANH’s art is specifically designed to be ecumenical and accessible, a move away from the confrontational, eff-you aggression of the culture wars (though Andres Serrano, the visual artist of Piss Christ fame, is a contributor). The exhibit will feature 3,300 square feet of exhibition space, sixteen listening stations, an outdoor screening area for movies and a venue for actors to perform live monologues and scenes by American dramatists.

T.S. Eliot further described William Blake’s poetry as maintaining "a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant." If "America: Now and Here" replaces just a little bit of the nation’s disquiet and tension with honesty—even a "peculiar" brand of honesty—it will have served its purpose.

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